It is common practice in many schools, including the one in which I currently serve as an assistant principal, to track students based on their academic abilities. Those students who are more academically inclined are placed in higher-level classes and those who are less so are placed in classes that better suit their needs. There are academic advantages and disadvantages to this approach. Students can move at their own pace, allowing stronger students to cover more material, and weaker students can spend the time they need to achieve mastery. On the other hand, students in a less rigorous track may work to the level in which they are placed, when, in fact, if pushed, they are capable of achieving more. However, most educators will note that there is a social downside of tracking, as well. Dividing students into different groups highlights their differences and, particularly when the groupings are heterogeneous, can create feelings of isolation and separation between individual students.
The task, then, is to devise an educational system wherein we may reap the benefits of tracking without the academic and social deficits. The answer, I believe, lies in differentiated instruction. Carol Ann Tomlinson, a leader in the field of education, has defined differentiation as “an approach to teaching in which teachers proactively modify curriculum, teaching methods, resources, learning activities, and student products to address the needs of individual students… to maximize the learning opportunity for each student in the classroom.” Teachers who are adept at differentiation know how to respond to the needs of every learner in their classrooms at his or her own level. They do this by recognizing the diversity in their classrooms and by providing choices regarding the tasks and projects that each student completes in order to suit the strengths of each individual student. Successful teachers then engage in ongoing self-assessment, modifying their instructional choices as needed. With careful planning, these teachers can have all levels of students in one classroom, but they can challenge each of them according to his or her individual abilities.
As a shul Rabbi, it struck me: What if our shuls used this model of differentiation? Might we reap communal gains similar to those I have seen in these classrooms? In communities with many shuls, each person has a myriad of options in terms of where he or she can choose to pray. What’s more, in many of these shuls, multiple minyanim exist, not necessarily due to space constraints, but in order to meet the different needs and preferences of different shul-goers. Do you want to pray in a shul with a lot of congregational singing or with hardly any singing at all? Do you want to pray in a “serious” minyan, or do you prefer one that empties out during haftorah for a Kiddush club? The advantage of this multi-option approach is that each person can find the minyan that he believes is most suited for him. However, the disadvantage is that by encouraging individuals to select their “perfect” minyan, we often inadvertently place our members in particular “tracks,” highlighting the religious differences in our communities. Those who pray in a “less serious” minyan may view themselves as less than serious daveners, when in fact they may be capable of achieving, and perhaps even yearning to achieve, much more.
What if our shuls allocated significant time and resources to creating an atmosphere that practiced differentiation within a single Shabbat morning minyan? If shul clergy and lay- leadership engaged in conversations amongst themselves and their congregants to assess what within the bounds of Halacha creates meaningful Shabbat morning religious experiences, what heights could be achieved? Perhaps the needs and aspirations of various types of congregants can be achieved all under one roof. Like differentiated instruction, it requires a lot of planning, but maybe we need a little bit of Carol Ann Tomlinson in our shuls… As an educator and as a community Rav, I believe that the benefits to our community are far worth our effort.